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Gothic Queer Culture: Marginalized Communities and the Ghosts of Insidious Trauma, by Laura Westengard

Reviewed by Elizabeth Simins

Violence, gore, death, dismemberment, cannibalism, hauntings, monstrosity, body horror: often coupled with a dark and unsettling sexuality, these are familiar subjects to any habitual consumer of queer cultural productions. This collection of uncomfortably titillating themes combine to form what Gothic Queer Culture, Laura Westengard’s wildly affirming page-turner of a book, calls “the gothic,” an aesthetic in the tradition of 18th- and 19th-century gothic literature that remains especially vibrant in queer American art and media.

The crux of Westengard’s argument is that in addition to the gothic being inherently queer—an assertion that has been well worn by any number of previous queer scholars, many of whom Westengard is in direct conversation with—American queer culture is also inherently gothic, frequently turning to the grotesque and unseemly to express the truth of what it means to exist in a society that has, often violently, deemed you fundamentally incompatible with it. “Insidious trauma,” coined by psychologist Maria Root and later expanded on by psychologist Laura Brown, refers to the ongoing “constant and internalized” (15) trauma experienced by marginalized people who are at once vulnerable and dehumanized by systems that create dangerous conditions for non-normative lives and then deny that those dangerous conditions exist. Westengard applies the idea of insidious trauma to queer people in particular and points to it as the reason that queer artists and writers keep returning to the same erotically sinister gothic themes, again and again.

What is remarkable about Gothic Queer Culture, however, is not Westengard’s convincing explanations for why queerness and the gothic are so intrinsically difficult, even impossible, to untangle from one another—though it is certainly satisfying to watch her impressively diverse body of evidence unfold over the course of chapters with titles like “Haunted Epistemologies: Gothic Queer Theory” and “Monstrosity: Melancholia, Cannibalism, and HIV/AIDS.” The real reason why Gothic Queer Culture is impossible to put down is that in addition to being meticulously argued, it is celebratory. In the spirit of Lady Gaga’s gleefully bloody and irreverent meat dress, with which Westengard opens the book, Gothic Queer Culture gracefully sidesteps moralizing judgements of the artists and writers whose challenging work it examines, choosing instead to emphasize the affirmative power of reveling in the lurid grey areas that queer artists and their work so often occupy.

Westengard’s obvious optimism about the possibilities that gothic culture continues to offer queer communities is perfectly in step with the overall anti-assimilationist approach that she takes in her uncompromising analysis. Like many contemporary queer scholars, Westengard acknowledges the neoliberally acceptable progress made by mainstream LGBT activism, while also mourning what she calls “the death of queerness as a subversive mode of existence that resists the normalizing effects of capitalist culture” (122). In the context of her argument, which by her definition is essentially gothic itself, it is perhaps unsurprising that Westengard repeatedly equates assimilation to death, but it is no less effective for its predictability. And paired with her subversively positive readings of apparently pessimistic and troubling work, Westengard’s understanding of assimilation (in its many forms) as a kind of death opens the door to any number of exciting new ways to interpret queer art’s long, gothic love affair with tragedy and death.

Like the “wound that won’t close and that refuses to be healed, indeed cannot be healed, because it is continually ripped open by repeated and incessant traumatic recurrences” (190), Gothic Queer Culture refuses its reader simple closure, instead ending on a scathing critique of the ways in which neoliberalism can reappropriate the gothic, and even the ostensibly queer, for its own cisheterosexist, white supremacist goals. But Westengard’s contempt, too, is encouraging. Though we leave with the understanding that the agents who inflict insidious trauma may be hiding in the most seemingly queer and gothic places, we are invited, with a kind of grisly pleasure, to excise them.

Gothic Queer Culture: Marginalized Communities and the Ghosts of Insidious Trauma, Laura Westengard, University of Nebraska Press, 2019

ISBN: 978-1496217028 (PB) $30, 288 pages